Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Parents Throw Graduation for Ohio High School Students Caught in Cheating Scandal. "The Ceremony They Deserved."

By Meredith Heagney
from the Columbus Dispatch

All along Main Street, people stopped what they were doing to cheer for the Centerburg High School Class of 2009.

A gas-station worker stepped outside and whooped. A woman dropped a bag of hot dog buns in her front yard and applauded. A few people had made cardboard signs of support: "Way to go class of '09."

Ninety-three graduates in crimson robes and mortarboards filed past and smiled for pictures. They were on their way to Centerburg Community Memorial Park, where hundreds gathered yesterday in folding chairs and on picnic tables for a makeshift graduation ceremony.

On Thursday, the Centerburg school board canceled the traditional ceremony planned for yesterday, citing a cheating scandal that started with a student hacking into the school's computer system and stealing tests. About half the seniors cheated or knew of the cheating and didn't report it, district officials said.

All the students' diplomas except the hacker's were released to their parents, who decided to give their kids what the Knox County district wouldn't.

The sunny ceremony wasn't the formal affair that would've taken place at the high school, but instead a slightly rowdy yet heartfelt imitation of a typical commencement, complete with a recorded version of Pomp and Circumstance.

"I didn't think we were going to have anything," said Leeza Smith, 18, whose eyes were red from crying. "The parents, they really made our day."

Several seniors marveled at the turnout as they took their seats on metal folding chairs atop a concrete platform. Before them, a small wooden stage held silver balloons and a bucket of red roses.

A few feet from them, two TV cameras filmed the event, crowded by little kids in jean shorts who wanted a closer look.

No administrators or staff members took part in the ceremony. Several times throughout, the students were applauded for overcoming the adversity of having had their ceremony canceled.

One by one, the graduates were called by name to the front of the stage to receive a rose. They weaved through the crowd to find their parents, who handed them their diplomas.

Carol Andrews couldn't stop squeezing daughter Caitlin. As a mom, she still wished her daughter had had a traditional, more formal, graduation, she said.

But, she added: "I think this is even more memorable. I'm just very proud of the community and the way they came together to give these kids the ceremony they deserved."